HAVING turned down the offer of a lucrative new contract just three months earlier, James Forrest appeared to be on the verge of departing Celtic in May last year when Brendan Rodgers took over as manager.

But as far as Rodgers was concerned the winger, who had been blighted by niggling injuries and whose form had been wildly erratic, had already been out on loan for the previous two seasons.

The Northern Irishman recounted yesterday how he had ribbed the player about his infuriating and perplexing failure to fulfil his enormous potential before he had even taken a training session at the Glasgow club.

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His light-hearted wind-up has clearly had the desired effect.

Forrest will likely be one of the key men for the Scottish champions at Park-head this evening when they attempt to secure a place in the knockout rounds of the Europa League by beating their Belgian counterparts Anderlecht in their final group game.

His play this season in general, and in the last Group B game at Celtic Park against Bayern Munich back in October in particular, has been nothing short of exceptional.

It would be no surprise at all if the 26-year-old, who took his tally for the 2017/18 campaign to 10 in all competitions with a double in the 5-1 win over Motherwell at the weekend, scored or set up the goals which secure a momentous win tonight.

Forrest, though, could not always be relied upon to produce when it mattered. Indeed, before Rodgers took over his career was foundering. There was a strong suspicion he could be another in a long line of wasted talents this country has produced. His manager deserves enormous credit for his transformation.

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“We had a nice little joke, me, James and Browny,” he said. “I had met Browny previous to my first day of training here, but when I was walking up the stairs he was with James. I shook Browny’s hand and then shook James’s hand and said ‘it’s nice to meet you’.

“I then turned to Browny and said: ‘Listen, will you do me a favour? If you see James Forrest can you tell him that the manager absolutely loves him and that he wants to have a little chat with him because he’s obviously been on loan for a couple of years but I want him back to play’.

“That gave him a little chuckle and he was up and running – we built up a rapport from day one. That is what football is about. It’s about developing the strengths of players. James’ strengths are one-v-ones, taking people on, scoring goals. I just had to stimulate him to know that he has to be part of a team and from that, in pre-season, he was arguably our best player.

“That’s your job as a coach and manager – to get the maximum out of the players. You know their talents. That is what I love doing and what makes me happy – seeing players fulfil their potential and maximising their talent and getting the best conditions in their life that they possibly can. That’s the joy.

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“When I first came in here I said, yeah, the trophies are great, absolutely bril-liant, but from a personal perspective for me the biggest joy is seeing the rela-tionship between the training and the games and then the consistency.”

Beating Anderlecht, who they defeated 3-0 away from home back at the end of September, finishing third in Group B and dropping into the last 32 of the Europa League would give Rodgers, his players and their supporters enormous joy this evening.

It would allow Celtic to finish a Champions League campaign during which they have been praised and criticised in equal measure on a high and would also be a definite improvement on how they fared in the competition last season when they failed to win one match and finished up with just three points after six games.

Rodgers remains, despite the away triumph his men recorded against their rivals in the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium earlier this term, conscious of the fact that they will need to perform at their very best once again when they face opponents who reached the quarter-final of the Europa League just last season.

“We want to win for the supporters,” he said. “That is our message going into the game. We have been in two campaigns now and we want to get a home victory. We had a great result out there in Anderlecht. We played very well and won. Now it would be nice to finish off our Champions League campaign with a great night and a great result.

“We are in the fourth pot for a reason. So the expectancy was probably for the top two teams to go through and Anderlecht to go into the Europa League. If we can finish with four or six points it would be great progress, another step forward for us.”

HeraldScotland | Sport

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